Portfolio:Reflection #7 (Scene with Dialogue)

The course: Fiction: Crafting Dialogue

We learned a lot about the importance of conflict in dialogue. To make dialogue interesting, the characters need to have objectives that are in conflict with each other. To practice creating conflict, we looked at a scene from the film Oleanna and tried to identify the action each character was trying to perform on the other character in the scene with each line they spoke.

As part of our homework, we were asked to listen carefully to real conversations around us. What is interesting in real conversations is that people don’t usually say exactly what they mean. There’s always subtext, and the writer’s challenge is to convey that subtext without “telling” too much.

We also spent time cutting the dead wood from dialogue. While real life conversations have plenty of filler words and small talk, that doesn’t make for compelling fiction. Every word needs to be able to move the plot forward or help with character development. All that extra stuff can be pruned away.

The assignment

We were asked to take a scene we had previously written and improve the dialogue using the principles and techniques taught in this class. I very rarely write fiction (or any genre with dialogue), so I took a scene from one of my only fiction projects, a mystery-romance novel.

When examining my scene, I found that I hadn’t considered my characters objectives enough and it was lacking in conflict. I was fairly clear on the objectives of one of my protagonists, Florence. But I had to dig deeper to explore the objectives of the other protagonist, Tom. I realized I had only really conceived of him as a love interest and I hadn’t tried to build a character with complex emotional needs.

Returning to this project for revisions, I found there were still many words and sentences that were not contributing enough to the plot. It was especially challenging to create dialogue that was concise but that also sounded authentic to the period (late 19th century London).

Outside of the dialogue, I found places where I could make sentences more active and where I could “show” rather than “tell.” For example, instead of telling the reader that the girl who answered the door looked like a maid, I showed her wearing an apron.

Finally, I cut several gratuitous exclamation marks that I was relying too heavily on to telegraph the emotions in the scene.

Portfolio: Revised Sample #7 (Scene with Dialogue)

Florence hardly believed her own boldness. Walking alone with a young man she barely knew? And to follow a mysterious stranger. Yet, it was thrilling, investigating a mystery. She imagined she was an officer of Scotland Yard trailing a suspect. Except, Miss Marchbanks wasn’t much of a suspect, her only crime being her resemblance to the dead.

“If you don’t dream of being London’s foremost typist, what do you dream of?” Tom eyed Florence and grinned. “A rich wife? Embroidering or playing the pianoforte while your Duke husband neglects you for the races?”

Florence snorted. “Though I would love a closet full of silk brocades and a jewellery box full of pearl earrings, I simply couldn’t. It would be so boring.”

“I hoped you would say that,” Tom said.

Florence’s heart fluttered. “Hoped?”

Tom flushed. “Rather, a bright young woman should never resign herself to tedium.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re a man. You have a choice. A woman may choose to marry, or to take one of the meager jobs considered suitable to our delicacy.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Tom said.

“Men often don’t,” Florence said softly. Even her own father, as dear as he was to her, didn’t seem to understand.

“If you could do anything, what would you do?”

“I’d be an officer in Scotland Yard.” Florence prepared herself for the potential reactions to her confession. Typically, she was met with a chuckle, sometimes with a chiding, Always, she was reminded of the danger, the exposure to unsuitable places and people.

To Florence’s surprise, Tom merely shrugged. “You couldn’t beat that for adventure, except perhaps sailing to Africa to tame lions.”

“I’m not sure. A den of lion’s couldn’t have much on London’s criminal underworld.”

Tom laughed. “True. I’ve met a fair few of London’s criminals and their table manners are not up to scratch.”

“Do you often sup with convicts?” Florence couldn’t decide if this possibility was fascinating or terrifying.

Tom hesitated. “It’s nothing, really.”

“If you don’t feel like sharing, I suppose there’s nothing to be done.” Florence pursed her lips and tipped her chin up just enough for him to notice.

“My mother ran a boarding house when I was a boy. Not all the roomers were respectable.” He lingered on the word respectable as if it were a book he was wrapping in paper.

“I’m sure you met the most fascinating people, though.”

“Perhaps. But I dare say, I’ve already met at least one fascinating person while minding Mr. Winthrop’s bookshop, and so far she hasn’t shown any criminal tendencies. I have yet to witness her table manners, though.” Was it just Florence’s imagination, or had he winked while saying that?

Blood surged to Florence’s cheeks. Surely he couldn’t mean her. She had never been called fascinating before. Morbid, perhaps. Hotheaded. What was the term Miss Peyton had used to describe her in grade school? Incorrigibly unconventional and deliberately unmarriageable, whatever that was supposed to mean. But never fascinating.

Before Florence could ask what Tom meant, he pulled the cart to a stop and pointed to the building in front of them. The umber bricks ran in crisp rows and the glass of the wide front window gleamed. A sign proclaimed it the surgery of Dr. Morton.

Tom maneuvered the cart to the tradesman’s entrance and knocked. The door swung open and a young woman with downy blonde hair and and a freshly starched apron peeked out. At the sight of her wide blue eyes sparkling up at Tom, Florence felt a sharp pain in her rib cage. It couldn’t be jealousy, she thought. She had only met Tom the day before, and for all she knew, he could be engaged. Or a madman. Or, worst of all, a secret fop. She hardly knew him at all, and any silly miss could sparkle up at him as much as she wanted!

“We’ve a delivery for Dr. Morton,” Tom told the girl. “That’s not you, is it?”

The maid laughed, producing a sound like a wild animal with its foot caught in a trap. Florence scowled. His joke didn’t deserve that much mirth, did it?

“Cor, who sent something that enormous?” The maid’s eyes flicked over Tom’s chest as she pronounced the last word.

“These are from the doctor’s fiancée,” Tom answered. “An entire stack of encyclopedias.”

“Books!” the girl exclaimed. “How dreadfully unromantic.”

Florence huffed. “I think a book is very romantic gift. If I had a fiancé who sent me books I would be ecstatic.”

“Even encyclopedias?” Tom asked, his eyebrow raised.

“I haven’t the faintest idea what sort of reading Dr. Morton prefers. This could be perfectly romantic to him.”

“The doctor was never much for romance before he met this Miss Marchbanks,” the maid told them. “And now, he spends his hours exchanging love letters.” She pulled a thick envelope from the pocket in her apron. “This is one of Miss Marchbanks’s responses, just arrived. I wouldn’t be surprised if she dabs her perfume on them before she sends them.”

An idea struck Florence. “You don’t say.” She tried to smile, but she felt more like a chimpanzee baring his teeth at the London Zoo. “Is it at least a nice perfume?”

The girl shrugged.

“Here, give me a sniff,” Florence insisted, snatching the envelope from the maid’s hand. She held the envelope to her nose and inhaled. A faintly floral aroma wafted up, but she hardly noticed it. What she was after was something else entirely. And there it was, almost too easily, the clue she was looking for:

Miss Mary Marchbanks

No. 8 Chesham St.

London, SW1

Portfolio: Draft #7 (Scene with Dialogue)

Florence could hardly believe her own boldness. Walking alone with a young man she hardly knew? And to follow a mysterious stranger at that! But at the same time, it was positively thrilling, investigating a mystery. She could almost imagine she was an officer of Scotland Yard trailing a suspect. Except, Miss Marchbanks wasn’t much of a suspect, her only crime being her resemblance to the dead.

“So, if you don’t dream of being London’s foremost typist, what do you dream of being?” Tom was eyeing Florence with a cheeky grin. “A rich wife? Embroidering or playing the pianoforte while your Duke husband neglects you for the races?”

“Certainly not! While I’m sure I wouldn’t mind a closet full of dresses and a jewelry box full of diamonds, I think I would be far too bored as a rich housewife!”

Tom laughed. “Somehow, I was hoping you would say that.”

Florence’s heart fluttered. “Hoping?”

Tom flushed. “That is to say, a bright young woman should never resign herself to a life of tedium.”

“That’s easy for you to say! You’re a man. You have some choice. A woman may choose to marry, or to take one of only a few meager jobs considered suitable to our delicacy.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Tom said.

“Men often don’t,” Florence said gently. Even her own father, as dear as he was to her, didn’t seem to understand.

“If you could do anything, what would you do?”

“I’d be an officer in Scotland Yard.” Florence prepared herself for the potential reactions to her confession. Typically, she was met with a chuckle, sometimes with a chiding, Always, she was reminded of the danger, the exposure to unsuitable places and people.

To Florence’s surprise, Tom merely shrugged. “Well, you couldn’t beat that for adventure I suppose, except perhaps sailing to Africa to tame lions.”

“I’m not sure,” Florence replied. “A lion couldn’t have much on a typical London criminal!”

Tom laughed. “I’ll admit to that. I’ve met a fair few of London’s criminals and many of their table manners are not up to scratch!”

“Do you often sup with convicts?” Florence couldn’t decide if this possibility was fascinating or terrifying.

“Not much anymore,” Tom admitted. “My mother ran a boarding house when I was a boy. Not all the roomers were respectable folk.”

“I’m sure you met the most fascinating people, though!”

Tom nodded. “That’s true. But I dare say, I’ve already met at least one fascinating person while minding Mr. Winthrop’s bookshop, and so far she hasn’t shown any criminal tendencies. I have yet to witness her table manners, though!” Was it just Florence’s imagination, or had he winked while saying that?

Florence felt herself blush. Surely, he couldn’t mean her! She hardly imagined herself fascinating. Morbid, perhaps. Hotheaded. What was the term Miss Peyton had used to describe her in grade school? Incorrigibly unconventional and deliberately unmarriageable, whatever that was supposed to mean. But never fascinating.

Before Florence could ask what Tom meant, he pulled the cart to a stop and gestured at the building in front of them. It was a neat brick building with immaculately scrubbed windows and a trim painted a crisp white. A sign proclaimed it to be the surgery of a Dr. Morton.

Tom maneuvered the cart to the entrance and knocked. He and Florence were greeted by a young woman who appeared to be a chambermaid. Florence noticed the maid’s downy blonde hair and wide blue eyes, and, to her surprise felt a pang of something that could be jealousy. Florence didn’t usually look at other young women enviously, but there was something about the way this girl blinked up at Tom that made Florence feel suddenly possessive. Foolishly, she reminded herself, as Tom was not hers to possess! She had only just met him the day before, and for all she knew, he could already be engaged, or worse, he could be a raving madman or a secret fop. She really hardy knew him at all, and any silly miss could blink at him as much as she wanted!

“We’ve a delivery for Dr. Morton,” Tom told the girl. “That’s not you, is it?”

The maid 1aughed, producing a sound like a wild animal with its foot caught in a trap. Florence scowled. There was no way that joke deserved so much mirth.

“Cor, who sent something that enormous?”

“These are from the doctor’s fiancée,” Tom answered. “An entire stack of encyclopedias.”

“Books!” the girl exclaimed. “How dreadfully unromantic!”

Florence huffed. “I think a book is very romantic gift. If I had a fiancé who sent me books I would be thrilled!”

“Even encyclopedias?” Tom asked, his eyebrow raised.

“I haven’t the faintest idea what sort of reading Dr. Morton prefers. This could be perfectly romantic to him!”

“I say, the doctor was never much for romance before he met this Miss Marchbanks,” the maid told them. “And now, he spends his hours exchanging love letters!” She pulled a thick envelope from the pocket in her apron. “This is one of Miss Marchbanks’s responses, fresh from the post office. I wouldn’t be surprised if she dabs her perfume on them before she sends them!”

Florence was struck by an idea. “You don’t say!” She tried to smile, but the expression was more like a chimpanzee baring his teeth at the London Zoo. “Is it at least a nice perfume?”

The girl shrugged.

“Here, give me a sniff,” Florence insisted, snatching the envelope from the maid’s hand. She held the envelope to her nose and inhaled. There was a faintly floral aroma, but she hardly noticed it. What she was after was something else entirely. And there it was, almost too easily, the clue she was looking for:

Miss Mary Marchbanks

No. 8 Chesham St.

London, SW1